Arthur works with Dom and Mal more often than not, and these days that means working with Eames as well. Arthur's fine with that because in spite of the swagger and cock-sure attitude, Eames is brilliant at what he does, and Arthur's still amazed how well Eames slips between characters in dreams. It's so much more than just a shift in appearance; it's movement and speech and the minuteness of gestures. Arthur has trouble managing to get his clothes to change significantly in dreams, so he doesn't know what kind of focus it takes to become someone else complete with laugh and nervous habits. He can't help but be a little fascinated by Eames, and from what Arthur can tell, it seems to be mutual.
It's their fourth job together in as many months, but it's their first living practically on top of one another. Mal's pregnant and wants to stay close to home, and Dom's stupidly in love and therefore indulgent, so Arthur and Eames have essentially moved in with the Cobbs. Eames claimed the proper guest room and Arthur's stuck with the soon-to-be nursery and a crappy futon. He won't admit it but it's almost more disturbing to wake up to cheerful yellow walls with dancing bears twirling along the chair rail than it is to wake up from dreams where he's been shot or killed by projections. At least he's got some kind of template for that, whereas the giddy bears with hats and stiff collars make Arthur feel as if he's stumbled into some strange carnival funhouse. In Russia, or possibly Elizabethan England. He really doesn't want to examine what that says about Dom and Mal and the mental health of their future offspring.
“Bit unnerving, aren't they?” Eames says from the doorway, gesturing with his mug towards the bears.
“I'll say,” Arthur agrees with a nod. “You should try sleeping in here.”
“If only I thought you meant that, pet.”
Arthur realizes what he's said, and can't help the quick flush of heat in his cheeks. Eames is quick to turn the slightest opportunity into innuendo. It earns him filthy French laughs from Mal and disapproving looks from Dom. Arthur grins and sits up, lets the sheets fall away from his naked torso and doesn't attempt to cover himself up. He can feel Eames' eyes on him, and he doesn't mind at all.
“Is that coffee for me, Mr. Eames?” Arthur asks. He likes the way Eames' lips quirk up when Arthur's oddly formal with him, so he makes a habit of calling him Mr. Eames, in much the same way Eames calls him “darling” and “love” and what has become an increasingly ridiculous assortment of pet names. Eames had called him “kitten” twice yesterday and Arthur thought Dom was going to have an aneurysm on the spot.
Eames looks apologetic. “It's tea, darling. Sorry. I can get you a ...”
Arthur stretches, languidly, aware of how he looks in the morning sunlight, aware that Eames has stopped talking to watch him. “Yes?”
“Um. Sorry. I can get you—do you want, um—yeah, coffee?”
It's flattering to see Eames rendered speechless, and Arthur lets his dimples show when he smiles. “Coffee would be great, Mr. Eames. Just let me get dressed.”
Arthur lets the sheet slip to the floor as he stands up, a light pair of cotton pyjama pants, threadbare and soft from use, sitting low on his hips. Eames makes a strangled sound, then promptly walks into the door frame as he turns to leave, spilling milky tea on the front of his trousers, and Arthur can't help but laugh.
“Oh, piss-off,” Eames says, but there's no heat in the words, even if it's there in Eames' eyes, and if Arthur's not mistaken there's a flush of colour on Eames' cheeks. “You're a bloody tease, Arthur, that's what you are.”
Arthur doesn't deny it as he winks and shuts the door so he can get dressed. When he emerges ten minutes later in dark jeans and a striped button-down, everyone else is in the kitchen working out breakfast choices. Eames passes Arthur a coffee as he sits down and doesn't say a word when Arthur steals a slice of orange, then a piece of toast from his plate. Arthur's sense of happy triumph carries him through the day.
They're six days into the planning for the job and Arthur feels on edge. He can't pinpoint the reason, can't explain why he's gone from relaxed to unsettled, and that not knowing, more than anything, is bothering him. He makes up an excuse to get out of the house, ignoring Dom's questioning eyes as he hands over the car keys. Arthur spends an hour skirting the California coastline at questionable speeds in a grey Volvo wagon with a brand-new car seat already in the back, then spends another hour walking on an almost empty beach, letting the wind ruffle his hair, feeling sand on his bare feet. When he leaves, he's calmer, his nerves less jangled, although he can't quite place what's wrong. He decides to let it go, chalks it up to the long hours, the uncomfortable futon, the ghastly dancing bears.
“Alright, Arthur?” Eames asks when Arthur returns. There's a line of worry along his forehead and Arthur gives him a small smile, reaches to pat his arm as he goes by.
“Fine, Mr. Eames. No reason for concern.”
It's only after he's walked past Eames to his room that Arthur realizes his hand never actually landed on Eames' arm, that Eames must've stepped away or shifted to avoid the touch. Arthur's jaw clenches and it's suddenly clear what's been missing the last few days.
Eames has stopped touching him.
It's not that Eames touches him all the time, but the sudden absence of any touching at all is as noticeable as a black cat on snow now that Arthur's thinking about it.
Arthur knows some people are more tactile than others. His mother was a hugger who would bundle family and strangers both into her arms at the slightest provocation. She hugged hello and goodbye, she hugged for comfort and condolence and support. She hugged fiercely when she was angry or frightened, gently when someone was sick. Even though Arthur isn't a hugger himself, he's been the recipient of enough hugs that allowing people to touch him is not a big deal. He likes it, in fact. More than he'll probably ever admit.
And he likes casual touches. The way a friend tugs an arm to get his attention, or the amiable pat on the back for a job well done. Arthur's more like his father—self-contained, reserved—but though it's not in his nature to reach out, he appreciates people who do.
It's part of why he likes Dom and Mal. Dom's a guy's guy with back slaps and shoulder punches. Mal's so very French, Arthur's gotten used to being kissed soundly on both cheeks or clasped in breathless excitement. And then there's Eames, whose whole being is attuned to the way people move and touch and talk to one another. He's probably the most tactile person Arthur's ever known. He touches everything around him, loves the texture of things.
Arthur tagged along on a shopping trip with him once, not long after they'd met, and after the first ten minutes of worrying Eames was secretly a kleptomaniac because he put his hands on everything, Arthur realized it was more akin to a blind man encountering the world through touch, and Arthur watched in fascination.
It took no time at all for Arthur to have an embarrassing hard-on from watching Eames molest fabrics in the menswear department. He'd run blunt, manicured fingers over silk ties and crisp cotton collars, palmed wool and cashmere, told Arthur to “touch it, darling, feel the way it caresses the skin. Marvellous, isn't it?” And Arthur had never again looked at clothes shopping in quite the same way.
So for someone as aggressively tactile as Eames to suddenly stop touching him entirely is cause for concern. Grave concern. Arthur's determined to get to the bottom of the problem. He hates to admit it, but he misses Eames' touches, casual though they might be, and he wants them back. The sooner the better.
There's no room to talk that evening. Time's taken up with finalizing architecture and reviewing the plan. By the time work is put aside, it's late and everyone's exhausted. Even Mal's ever-present pregnancy glow seems to have dimmed.
“Good work, everyone,” Dom says, patting Arthur on the shoulder. It's nice but it's not Eames. “We should be ready for a trial run tomorrow. Get some sleep.”
Mal corners Arthur to help her put away the dishes from supper, and by the time Arthur's said goodnight, Eames' room is dark and quiet.
“Eames?” Arthur taps gently at the door, but there's no response. Arthur considers letting himself in anyway, but perhaps he's over-reacting. Maybe everyone's a bit on edge, Eames too, so Arthur decides to leave it alone. He can talk to Eames in the morning.
Arthur wakes to the smell of fresh coffee. When he opens his eyes, a curl of steam is wafting over from the bedside table, and Arthur guesses the coffee can't have been there more than a minute. Arthur's used to coming out of sleep alert, so it's an achievement Eames managed to leave the cup without waking him at all.
There's a yellow post-it note underneath the mug—Off to tale the mark. Don't work two hard. E. Arthur always wonders why Eames signs these things given there are only three possibilities, and Arthur's relatively sure Mal and Dom know which “to” to use. They were both academics, for Pete's sake. The “tale” is anyone's guess—it could be perfectly intentional knowing Eames' sense of humor, and Arthur likes that sense of playfulness. He decides “tale” is definitely deliberate, and he can't help but look forward to whatever tale Eames will bring back with him at the end of the day.
Dom knocks on his door then, and Arthur shakes off his daydreams.
“Yeah, I'll be right out.”
Cobb wants to run through the architecture even without Eames being there.
“Wouldn't it be better to wait til he's back?” Arthur asks.
“He could be gone all day,” Mal says, unwinding the lines for the PASIV. “A quick run-through with just you and Dom will let you get the feel for the maze, yes? A chance to work out any problems?”
Mal's their chemist and because of her pregnancy is staying topside. There's always a risk when Cobb's the dreamer and Arthur's playing the mark; Arthur's subconscious isn't overly welcoming to intruders, even when he knows they're not threatening. Arthur's actually more than a little proud of that fact, although his colleagues don't always appreciate a subconscious with an itchy trigger finger.
Cobb and Arthur are moving through an office building. Dom's been practising with rounded corridors, and the building seems to loop endlessly through bland beige hallways and walnut office doors. Arthur thinks this exact layout could probably be used to drive someone crazy. It's the architectural equivalent of The Yellow Wallpaper.
“I'm glad I don't have to work in a place like this,” Arthur mutters after they've passed fourteen identical doors looking for the one that will lead them through the exit shortcut.
“Here it is,” Dom says. “Fire exit. I need you to disable the alarm, though.”
“On it,” Arthur says, pulling out wire-cutters and feeling around the edge of the door for the circuit.
Dom keeps an eye out for projections, but it's been relatively quiet. “Arthur,” Dom starts, and he's got the tone of someone who wants to broach a topic and isn't quite sure how. Arthur keeps working on sorting out wires and tries to stay absolutely calm. If he gets agitated, it will only draw the projections in that much faster.
“Arthur, you shouldn't get too attached to Eames,” Dom finally manages to get out, and when Arthur looks up at him, Dom's eyes hold an apology.
“What's that supposed to mean? He's not exactly a puppy, Dom.”
“No, but he is a thief and a forger, not only down here.”
“I already know that.” Arthur's not sure where this conversation's going.
“I'm just saying you might not be able to trust him.”
Arthur stops with a wire held between two fingers. “You don't trust Eames?”
“That's not what I'm saying. I just think you should be careful.”
“Me,” Arthur says, and he knows the tremor in his hand isn't nerves, but anger. “I should be careful.”
“Because Eames is a thief and a forger.”
“Yes.” Dom seems pleased that Arthur is finally catching on.
“And what do you think we are? The job's to extract a set of Swiss bank account numbers from a CEO. How does that not make us thieves?”
“We're not using those numbers for personal gain. What the client does with them isn't our responsibility; we're not here to make moral judgments. You know this has always been about pushing the boundaries of the mind, Arthur. At least for Mal and me. And you.”
Arthur lets the red wire drop from his fingers without clipping it. “So we're like those websites that allow the posting of copyrighted material because, hey, they don't know people are going to illegally download things. They're just providing a service; what people do with it is not their concern.”
“That's loophole bullshit, Dom. I get that you and Mal came into this through the academic end of things, and I respect that about you guys. But, people get into dream-sharing for two reasons: the money or the thrill of it, or both.”
Arthur can hear the sound of feet running towards them. He should cut the wire and be done with it. They can slip through the shortcut and check the vault where they hope the account numbers will appear during the actual job.
“Arthur, listen to me. Eames is dangerous. He's not like us. He's a criminal. He runs with an entirely different crowd of people from what you're used to, and he's going to get you in trouble if you let him.”
“Christ, Dom, you make me sound like a fifteen-year-old girl Eames is going to knock up. If you didn't want me around him, why bring him on these jobs? You're the one who introduced us.”
“I didn't think you'd like each other!” Dom says too loudly. “I thought you'd hate him and he'd think you were pretentious, and you'd see that there's a downside to this business, a criminal element. I thought you'd understand how dangerous this is, not get distracted by it! I was trying to protect you.”
Arthur laughs, even as he knows his own projections are closing in on them. Dom scowls, but Arthur can't help himself, laughter pouring out of him unrestrained. “Jesus, fuck, Dom, do you hear yourself? You brought me the equivalent of the sexy dangerous guy on a motorbike and expected me not to be interested? That worked out well, didn't it?”
The projections—security guards with drawn Glocks—round the corner and order them to surrender. Arthur draws his own gun and amid the hail of bullets, turns and shoots Dom in the face.
“That's for thinking I'm pretentious.”
The look of surprise in Dom's eyes more than makes up for the pain of Arthur's punctured lung, the agony of multiple gunshot wounds as he goes down, still coughing up laughter, the dream crumbling around him as they wake up.
When Arthur opens his eyes, Dom's already unhooked from the device and is glaring over at him. Mal's looking back and forth between them with concern, and no one's saying anything when Eames walks in, damp from a rain shower, shaking out his wet jacket.
“It's raining bloody cats and—hello? What's gone wrong?” Eames glances between Arthur and Dom's sullen faces, but the question's directed at Arthur. “Arthur, what's wrong?”
“Nothing,” Arthur says. It's not an answer, but he isn't about to get into anything here and now, not when he's still on the edge of anger. He pulls the needle out of his arm, not caring about being gentle, and hops off the couch. “I need some air,” he says, and walks out, slamming the front door behind him.
It really is raining ridiculously hard, and Arthur doesn't have a jacket or an umbrella or anything. At least it's California, and the rain is cool, but not cold. He walks until he's soaked through, and finds he's near a bar that looks like the last place Dom or Mal might go, making it exactly the kind of place Eames might turn up. Arthur pushes the heavy wooden door open and walks in out of the rain.
Arthur's never been a huge drinker, but he thinks he's holding his liquor admirably by the time Eames slides into the booth across from him. Neither of them says anything for a long while, and a waitress drops a glass off at the table for Eames because Arthur's already got a bottle and he doesn't mind sharing. He peers at the bottle. Yeah, there's some left for Eames. A little. Not as much as Arthur thought, but still, he gives a magnanimous wave of his hand, and Eames doesn't even bother to hide his smirk. He pours himself a drink and downs it in one go.
“Oh, dear God, that's wretched.”
“You get used to it,” Arthur assures him, with a pat to the hand, and Eames bursts out laughing.
“Darling, you're completely pissed.”
“I'm fine,” Arthur says, scowling. Maybe his voice sounds a bit loud in his own head, and maybe he's got an inexplicable desire to bang his hand on the table when he talks, but he knows where he is (a bar) and what he's doing (drinking) and how much he's had to drink (a lot). Really a lot.
“Look, I gather you and Cobb had a bit of a row. You're mates, it happens. Do you want to talk about it?”
Arthur shakes his head. “Cobb thought I'd hate you.”
“What do you mean, love?”
“Cobb thought I'd hate you. You'd hate me. Everybody's happy. Nothing but work, work, work.”
Eames pours himself another drink, knocks it back, and shakes his head as if that will help him make sense of what Arthur's saying, which is perfectly clear, Arthur knows. Obviously, the liquor is interfering with Eames' brain.
“Why would I hate you?”
“Cobb thought we'd hate each other because we're not alike? Considering he's married to a chemist, the man knows absolutely nothing about chemistry.”
Eames has a habit of biting on his bottom lip when he's trying to figure things out. Arthur wants to reach out and make him stop. He manages to poke him in the chin before Eames grabs his hand. He doesn't let it go, and Arthur realizes this is the first time Eames has touched him in days. It feels nice.
“Feels nice,” he murmurs, and Eames looks at him in a way Arthur is sure Eames must reserve for baby pandas and day-old kittens and people who are very, very, possibly stupidly drunk. Like Arthur.
“Yes? Oh, Arthur, don't—”
Eames is all blurry and Arthur realizes it's because he's moving around the table at the same time Arthur is listing to the side, or maybe the whole room is moving because he feels like he's on a boat, and the boat is bobbing up and down on a really stormy ocean, and oh, it's not a good feeling at all.
It's completely dark when Arthur comes to. He's lying on a horizontal surface that isn't a floor—he's pretty sure it's a bed—and his heart is racing so fast Arthur wonders if he's about to have a heart attack. He's concentrating very hard, in spite of the pounding in his head, on not putting a name to the disgusting taste in his mouth.
One of the blurry dark shapes comes into focus, and Arthur knows it's Eames, although he doesn't know where they are.
“It'll be better in the morning if you can take these,” Eames says, and there are three white tablets pressed firmly into Arthur's hand. He's considering what might be the best way to attempt sitting up, when there's a hand on his shoulder, gently rolling him to the side. “Just lift your head, Arthur,” and Arthur lifts his 800-pound-head enough that he can take a sip of water from the glass pressed against his mouth, and he licks the pills off his palm and swallows them with more water. He knows his head would've fallen back against the pillow like a brick dropped from the top of a building, except for Eames' hand there, setting him down gently.
“Oh, fuck, Eames. I'm so, so fucked.”
Cool fingers brush the hair off Arthur's forehead. “Oh, darling, if this is how you feel when you're fucked, someone's been treating you terribly wrong.”
The next time Arthur wakes up, there's light pushing at the edges of the curtains. He can see now he's in a motel room—a cheap motel room if the brown-and-orange covers and the brown shag carpeting are anything to go by—and he's been stripped down to his boxers and covered with a sheet. His head is still aching, but Arthur can downgrade it from jackhammer to teenage garage band, and there's a glass of water and more white tablets on the bedside table by the clock radio. It tells him it's 10:35. He's alone, but Arthur's sure Eames isn't far—maybe Dom thinks Eames isn't a stand-up guy, but Arthur's pretty sure Eames won't leave him hungover in a strange motel room in just his boxers. He takes the pills and drinks the entire glass of water, even though it settles uncomfortably in his stomach, and sees there's a post-it stuck on the bottom of the glass that simply says, Back soon. E.
“Where are my clothes?” Arthur asks aloud. Predictably, there's no answer from the empty room.
The next time Arthur wakes up, Eames is back from wherever he'd gone. Arthur's lost another couple of hours according to the bright red numbers on the radio. He puts his hands over his face and rolls into the pillow.
“Ah, awake are we? Feeling any better?” Eames' voice is entirely too cheerful for someone who's probably been up most of the night. Arthur wants to hate him, but he can't because he's pretty sure he threw up on Eames' shoes at least once, and you can't hate somebody who looks after you in spite of vomit.
“I feel like someone drop-kicked me in the head,” Arthur complains, “and left a dead pigeon in my mouth.” Arthur rubs at his tongue with his fingers, and doesn't look at Eames. “Ugh. I hate myself so much right now.”
“Don't trouble yourself, Arthur,” Eames says. “It's not truly embarrassing until you've made the front page of the local rag with your naked arse hanging out of a police car window while your best mate's standing on the bonnet in his mum's Sunday dress singing 'Bag it Up' by Geri Halliwell.”
Arthur looks up at that and glances over. Eames looks perfectly serious.
“Speaking from experience?”
Eames winks at him. “Whatever gave you that idea?”
Miraculously, Eames doesn't demand he talk about it, for which Arthur is planning to be eternally grateful. He feels like an idiot already, and he's not sure how he's going to be able to face Dom and Mal ever again after storming out of their house like a teenager. Not to mention shooting Dom in the face in the dream—that kind of thing never goes over well, no matter how well-deserved it might be. Arthur's not sure what to do with Dom trying to protect him—Dom makes him feel like a fucking kid sometimes.
Arthur's managed to get a shower and change into the clean clothes Eames brought him from Dom's house, but he's still got a bitch of a headache and all he's been able to eat is some plain steamed rice. Eames is handily demolishing an order of Kung Pao Chicken with chopsticks, his mismatched socks kicked up on the edge of the room's queen-sized bed, and eyes half-turned towards the god-awful Lifetime movie that's playing in the background. Arthur expects he's experiencing Eames' own particular form of punishment for his drunken stupidity, but he doesn't have the heart to ask if that's what this is, or if Eames is just this fucking weird.
“We don't really have to go back, do we?” Arthur asks plaintively, and Eames pauses with a piece of chicken an inch from his lips.
“No, Arthur, we can stay here at the Motel 6 forever. I'll get a job washing dishes and parking cars, and you can start as a busboy and work your way up to night manager. We'll stay here in Room 13, living on take-away Chinese and love, and never, ever have to leave.”
“Sarcasm doesn't become you. Not even a little.”
Eames laughs and tosses a piece of chicken at Arthur's face where it lands with a sticky splop.
“I hate you, Eames.”
“I know, darling.”
The Lifetime movie ends in tears and hugs, as they often do, and Eames clicks the television off and stretches, managing to show off both his shoulders and his abs, to Arthur's chagrin. No one should make a plain black t-shirt look that good.
“That was a terrible movie,” Arthur says from his new position draped across the bed sideways. “It made no sense at all.”
“Do you need me to recount the plot for you again?”
“I'd rather you bludgeon me to death with the remote.” Arthur peers at Eames from where his head's pillowed on his arms. “So, is the job off?”
He might have rare moments when he acts like a colossal idiot, but most of the time he's a professional and he cares what the people he works with think of him.
“No. There's some leeway. The timing's not particular with this one, so no worries about that.”
“Does Dom even know where we are?”
“Yes. Sort of.”
“Meaning I told him you needed some time to cool down, that I was keeping an eye on you from a respectful distance, and I'd check in periodically.”
Arthur raises an eyebrow. “So, you didn't say we were hidden away at a Motel 6 until I recover from my hangover and can face them again, which should be in, oh, a hundred years or so?”
“I did consider telling him we'd shacked up at the Motel 6, but given his current mood and access to firearms, I opted for lying.”
“Good choice,” Arthur agrees. “He doesn't like you very much, you know.”
Eames laughs and sits on the bed near Arthur's head. “At the moment, he doesn't like you very much either, darling. You did shoot him in the face, after all.”
“He told you that?”
“That's about all he told me.”
“Hm.” Arthur reaches out and pokes Eames in the thigh. “Is this what you consider 'a respectful distance'?”
“I'll have you know I've been nothing but a gentleman.”
Arthur rolls onto his back and looks at Eames. “Yeah, I've been meaning to talk to you about that. Do you realize you've stopped touching me?” Eames' face flushes a perfectly charming shade of pink, and Arthur can't help but grin up at him. “Ah, so you do realize it.”
“Arthur—” Eames starts to stand up, and Arthur circles his fingers around Eames' wrist and tugs him back down.
“No, stay. I want to know why. If you're not interested, that's fine, but I don't think that's the reason.”
Eames is shaking his head, and he looks miserable. He lets out a deep breath, but doesn't say anything, and Arthur pushes himself up with one hand so they're both sitting.
“Have I done something?” Arthur asks, not letting go of Eames' wrist, even though it's awkward to keep himself upright on one hand.
“No, of course not.”
“Are you mad at me?”
“No, I just—I figured maybe it wasn't terribly professional of me.”
“And now you're lying to me,” Arthur states because it's there in the way Eames won't meet his eyes, and Arthur's forcibly reminded that Eames really isn't much older than he is. “What's going on? The truth, Eames.”
“We work together. I didn't want to make you uncomfortable, that's all.”
Arthur studies Eames' face with sudden understanding. “Did Dom say something to you? He did, didn't he?”
“Why would you think—”
“You're what we fought about. In the dream.” Arthur can see he's got all of Eames' attention now, so he lets go of his wrist, and shifts around so he can lean against the headboard. “We were checking the office architecture and Dom decided that was a good time for a heart-to-heart.”
“Apparently you're a criminal.” Arthur can't keep the smirk from his lips.
“You don't say.” The sarcasm is heavy in Eames' voice, and he runs a hand through his short hair. “Fucking academics. Always think they're so much better than the rest of us.”
“Hey,” Arthur says, and nudges Eames' thigh with his toes. “I don't think that. I know we're all criminals. I don't have any illusions about the work, and I don't need anybody's protection. Let me ask you something, Eames. Have I ever given you the impression I can't take care of myself?”
“No.” Eames laughs at the suggestion. “Jesus, Arthur, you're a little scary sometimes, and I mean that in the best possible way.”
Arthur grins, and his equilibrium isn't perfectly restored, but he manages to lean forward enough to tug at Eames' bicep until he's sitting at Arthur's hip, facing him. “So, if I didn't want you to touch me, I'm perfectly capable of stopping you, right?”
“I have no doubt about that, darling.”
Arthur smiles because, God help him, he likes the stupid endearments. “And if I don't want something, I can tell you to stop, right, Mr. Eames?”
“And yet I haven't done either of those things.”
Eames is clearly trying to make sense of that, which seems to be a challenge now that Arthur's stroking his fingers lightly over Eames' arm and shoulder. Eames clears his throat. “So, you want me to keep touching you?”
Arthur can feel Eames' fingers settle on his hip with a gentle squeeze. “Yes. If I don't like what you're doing, I'll let you know.”
“Arthur,” Eames murmurs, leaning his forehead against Arthur's. “Dom's not wrong, you know. I'm a criminal and a thief and there are at least two countries I can't set foot in, and—”
“I don't care.”
Eames starts to laugh. “Dom considers you family, Arthur, and that's not a terrible thing. They care about you.”
“And I suppose you only want into my pants?”
Eames laughs and it breaks some of the tension. “You know better than that. But Dom told me in no uncertain terms to back off. There were detailed threats made upon parts of my person I'm rather attached to.”
“I never figured you for a coward, Eames.”
“You're young, you're bright, you can do anything, and getting mixed up with me is probably the quickest route to screwing up your life.”
“For fuck's sake, you're only three years older than me, you're the best forger anyone's ever seen in dreaming, and I know the risks. I appreciate everyone's concern, and even your ridiculous attempt at chivalry, but it's my life, okay? Now, is there anything else you need to say before I kiss you?”
“The best forger anyone's ever seen? Really?”
“Oh, shut up!”
Arthur wakes up sometime in the night and reaches for Eames. He's all the way on the other side of the motel bed, tucked against the edge. Arthur scoots up along his back, trying to determine if Eames is asleep.
“I was attempting to keep a respectful distance,” Eames murmurs as Arthur wraps an arm around his waist and tugs him back towards the center of the bed.
“Well, stop it.” Arthur nips his shoulder gently. “If I was looking for respectable, I would've looked elsewhere.”
Eames snorts into the pillow. “I can be perfectly respectful and not at all respectable. They're not the same thing, you know.”
Arthur shrugs and prods at Eames until he rolls over with a sigh, as if it's some kind of hardship, letting Arthur press in against his chest. It's close and comfortable, and Arthur likes the fit of Eames' broad arms around him, fingers slipping through the loose strands of Arthur's hair. He feels the light caress of lips on his forehead.
The sex had been a pleasant affair. Sweaty and playful and achingly good, Eames' mouth seemingly made for kissing and sucking and an endless stream of filthy endearments in that lovely rolling cadence. Arthur knows what he likes and what he wants, and Eames had made it so easy for Arthur to ask with a look, a nudge, a hand slipped between them. Arthur can't remember laughing as much with anyone else, nor does he typically like sharing a bed, yet here he is. Eames seems to be the exception to all of Arthur's unspoken rules.
“Did you wake me up and drag me to the center of the bed just to think loudly in my general direction?” Eames asks, and Arthur had almost forgotten Eames was still awake.
The arms holding him loosen fractionally. “Regrets, darling?” The tone is light, but Arthur senses the question isn't. He lifts his head and kisses Eames on the mouth.
“No. No regrets.” And because it's polite to ask even if you know the answer, Arthur says, “You?”
“No. I couldn't possibly regret knowing how lovely every inch of you is, Arthur; how absolutely beautiful you look when you're on the verge of coming.”
“Christ, Eames,” Arthur says, tangling their bodies together. “You can't just say things like that!”
“Of course, I can.” Eames rolls them over until he's pressing Arthur back into the mattress. “And I will, as long as you'll let me.”
There's a sort of wistfulness in his voice, as if Eames doesn't quite believe in happiness or forever, and Arthur doesn't really believe in those things either, but he wants to try. For Eames.
“Promise me something.”
“If I can.” There's caution in Eames' tone, but also the willingness to take a chance. For Arthur.
“Promise you won't stop touching me.” Arthur brings a hand up to cup Eames' cheek, pleased when he rubs against it like a contented cat. “Whatever this is, for however long it lasts, it doesn't change the fact I like working with you, I like being around you. And part of who you are is the way you touch people.”
Eames waggles his eyebrows suggestively. “Only you, love.”
Arthur can't help but slap him on the ass. “That's a total lie. You touch everyone and everything around you, which is why it was alarming when you suddenly stopped.”
“Alarming, you say?”
“Oh, fuck off. I missed it, okay? I missed you being Mr. Touchy-Feely all the time.”
“Mr. Touchy-Feely? Maybe I should get business cards. I trust you'll provide a good reference.”
“You're impossible. I'm trying to tell you that you shouldn't stop doing the things that make you who you are—not for Dom, not for me, not for the job or anyone.” Arthur isn't sure whether to blame the hangover, the Lifetime movie, or Dom for the ridiculous spill of emotions that seems to have taken the place of another round of sex. Somebody certainly needs to be blamed.
“I like you. The way you are. With the constant touching and the utterly inappropriate way you molest menswear—”
“—the way you smile when you're insulting stupid people and you—you sign your post-it notes even when they couldn't possibly be from anyone else, and the way you mix-up words—”
“I mix-up words?”
“—but sometimes it's obvious you're being clever and sweet, and no one has ever called me 'darling' or followed me to a bar to make sure I was okay—”
“—or let me throw up on their shoes.”
“I wouldn't exactly say I let you ...”
“All I'm saying is that I like you.”
Arthur knows it's been a breathless tirade of sap, but that honestly doesn't excuse what Eames does next: “And I can't deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me! You really like me!”
“Did you just do Sally Field's Oscar acceptance speech? In her voice?”
“Maybe.” Eames seems to be intently studying Arthur's clavicle.
Arthur rubs a hand over his eyes as if it can erase where they've ended up, and sighs heavily, Eames' weight helping to crush just a little more air out of him. Sadly it seems not to be enough to render him either dead or speechless. “For the record, I have never, ever wanted to be in bed with Sally Field, and secondly, I know I'm gay, but I honestly have never thought I was quite this gay.”
Eames kisses Arthur's clavicle apologetically. “Shall we strike that last bit from the record?”
“Yes. Now what was I saying?”
“Before you turned into a gushing waterfall of sentimentality?”
“You were suggesting I should touch you,” Eames says hopefully.
“Yes, the touching, I know it's just something you do, and that's fine,” Arthur announces with some authority, and Eames' eyebrows start to twitch again. Arthur glares up at him. “I have no problem punching you in the face, Eames, if you don't listen to what I'm trying to tell you.”
Eames clears his throat and tries to look suitably chastised, but really mostly looks pleased with himself, and Arthur really can't find fault with that. “Go on, darling. I'll behave.”
“Dom had no business interfering, but aside from that, it was kind of awful to realize you were consciously avoiding touching me.”
“I'm sorry, pet. I honestly wasn't sure if you'd notice.”
“Well, I fucking did, and everything felt off during those few days.”
Eames is looking at him with bemused wonderment, and Arthur doesn't have any idea what to do with that kind of open emotion. He's starting to think the two of them should never, ever try to talk in bed.
“What?” he asks irritably, which should be impossible given the naked warmth of Eames on top of him, but apparently it's not.
“You're like the bloody Princess and the pea.”
“That metaphor really doesn't work.”
“My Arthur, so emotionally sensitive to my touches that the loss of them—”
“Eames! I will punch you. Seriously. In the face.”
“Come here, Princess. Let me touch you all over,” Eames whispers against Arthur's ear, and Arthur honestly tries to make a fist because Eames deserves to be punched—Sally Field and talk of princesses have no place in his bed—but then Eames is mouthing soft, warm kisses into the bare skin of Arthur's shoulder, his throat, and there are determined fingers trailing down Arthur's side, darting up to pinch a nipple, walking down the steps of his ribs. Eames is smiling as Arthur's breath hitches, his back and neck arching under Eames' touch, and Arthur can't remember anymore why he wanted to punch that lovely scruffy face in the first place.
“God, Eames, don't stop,” Arthur says, finding Eames' mouth and covering it with his own.
All thoughts of face-punching and sleep are subsequently forgotten.
Check-out time at the Motel 6 is noon, and they linger until the last possible moment, knowing they won't get the chance to be together at Dom and Mal's.
“We can keep the room, if you like,” Eames says, as they approach the front desk. “Motel 6, our very own piece of paradise.”
Arthur laughs, shaking his head. “Can't hide forever.”
Eames hands over a credit card to pay for their stay, and Arthur makes a note of the amount so he can pay Eames back.
“Don't fret, love,” Eames murmurs, directly into Arthur's ear, seemingly unaware of the effect that has on Arthur. “Not my credit card, anyway. Criminal, remember?”
“Could you sign here, Mr. Wodehouse?” The desk clerk pushes a receipt across and Eames signs with a flourish. “Thank you, sir. Please come again.”
Eames gives a dopey smile that positively oozes British charm, and innocently promises, “We'll come as often as possible, my dear,” and Arthur has to make a concerted effort not to laugh out loud. Eames sets a broad hand against the small of Arthur's back and gives him a tiny push towards the door.
“You're terrible!” Arthur says as they slip into the rental car Eames has been using.
“I believe the word you want is incorrigible, darling.” Eames leans over and kisses Arthur before shifting the car into reverse and backing out. Dom and Mal's place isn't far, and Arthur's grateful Eames seems content to take the scenic route.
“I feel like a truant being returned to my parents,” Arthur says, leaning his arm on the rolled-down window and watching the houses rush past.
“We're definitely going to have to work on your fantasies, kitten.” When Arthur doesn't manage a laugh, Eames reaches across and squeezes his thigh. “Arthur, you had every right to be angry, but they have no idea what went on after you left the house. Not the pub, not any of it, and I'm not going to tell them, are you?”
Another squeeze to the thigh, and Arthur lets his hand drift over top of Eames', their fingers lacing loosely together.
“Repression is your friend. Don't be afraid to embrace it whole-heartedly. Dom's definitely going to. I can almost guarantee a one-armed hug, a mumbled apology, and a fervent desire to never mention it again.”
Arthur looks at him, wanting it to be true. “You're sure?”
“Trust me. I know people. Dom's as upset about the argument as you are about walking out.”
“And what about us?”
“We'll always have the Motel 6,” Eames says in a startlingly accurate Bogart impression.
“Asshole,” Arthur says fondly.
The word's mostly lost between laughter and the warm rush of wind. Eames doesn't remove his hand from Arthur's, just lifts it to his lips and kisses Arthur's palm before settling their joined hands against his thigh. The road inevitably leads them back to Dom and Mal, dancing bears and lucid dreams, cups of coffee and post-it notes by his bed. All the things Arthur considers home.
Eames is perfectly right about Dom and Mal's reaction to Arthur's return, of course. He knew he would be. He sees the beginning of quiet apologies and awkward hugs, and chooses that moment to duck out quietly onto the porch, ostensibly for a cigarette, but mostly to give them some privacy.
Arthur joins him there after awhile. Eames doesn't know how much time has passed, but he's on his third fag. Arthur leans on the railing beside him, shoulder pressed against Eames', and steals a drag off his cigarette before handing it back.
Arthur nods. “It was all very Lifetime movie-of-the-week.”
“So, no plot to speak of, but tears and hugs all around, yeah?”
Arthur plucks the cigarette from Eames' mouth and puts it to his own, drawing a long, shaky breath. He blows a ridiculous smoke ring that wobbles in the air, holding its shape as it rises to the roof.
“You can have your own, you know. I've got a full pack.” Eames holds up the somewhat crumpled, mostly empty package. “Most of a pack.”
Arthur just raises an eyebrow at him, brown eyes amused, Eames' cigarette tucked between Arthur's lovely lips.
“You can still have your own.”
“I know. I like yours better.”
Another smoke ring drifts upwards, and then the cigarette's back, pressing lightly against Eames' lips. He takes it, inhales the heavy taste of tobacco and smoke, thinks he can taste a hint of mint, a breath of Arthur.
“You say the nicest things, love,” Eames says, nudging Arthur lightly. “But flattery won't get you anywhere.”
Arthur makes a thoughtful humming sound. “I'm pretty sure what worked last time was being drunk and forward and possibly throwing up on your shoes.”
Eames grimaces. “The shoe-vomit was not actually a point in your favor. I had to bin my loafers, and I rather liked them.”
“I'll add them to the list of things I owe you for.”
“You don't owe me anything, Arthur,” Eames says, aware his voice sounds tense. “And if you have an actual list, I may have to punch you in the face.” Arthur looks momentarily sheepish, but wisely doesn't offer to confirm the existence of such a list. “You're not the only one who can turn threatening physical violence into a romantic gesture.”
“Touché, Mr. Eames.”
The cigarette's almost done, and Eames lets his fingers brush against Arthur's lips as he slips it from Arthur's mouth and puts it to his own for a last, slow drag. Through an open window, the sounds of Dom and Mal putting together something for dinner for the four of them are a comforting backdrop. Eames isn't entirely used to the domesticity that comes with working with the Cobbs, and he knows they have a peculiar relationship—they like him, they need his skills, but at the same time, they don't entirely trust him, especially not where Arthur is concerned.
“So, what now, darling?” Eames says softly.
“Finish the job, I guess. Go from there.”
Eames stubs the cigarette out in the dirt of one of Mal's flower boxes perched precariously on the railing, knocks loose the dirt and ash, then pockets the end because he's a guest, and he tries to be a decent one. Arthur's moved a step closer. They both smell of smoke and hotel soap, and they've each got two days' worth of stubble.
Two days have changed them.
Eames knows what Arthur's hipbones feel like pressed against his and the way Arthur's curls spring free when he's not allowed that rubbish pomade to subdue his hair. Arthur sings in the shower and in his sleep; he's a terrible drunk, a sentimental lover, makes lists obsessively, and talks at least as much as Eames.
Arthur's traced the lines of Eames' tattoos with his fingers, the flat of his tongue, kissed every scar from jobs gone wrong, and left a trail of mouth-shaped bruises scattered like petals across Eames' neck and chest. In much less than two days, he's learned how to make Eames' arch off the mattress with a single touch, and Eames knows exactly how to return the favor, spreading Arthur wide and licking him open, wet, desperate, fucking into him in strong, steady strokes, watching him give up control, give in, let someone else be what he needs, let someone give back without asking for anything in return.
Eames has no desire to return to a time when he didn't know these things about Arthur. About himself.
“You're staring at me.”
“Of course, I'm staring at you.” Arthur's face snaps into focus again, all pale skin and dark eyes, cheekbones high and sharp. Eames can't help himself, can't stop the growl sliding under his tone, like gravel along a riverbed, rough and needy. “What the fuck else do you expect me to look at out here, darling? The bloody petunias?”
Eames closes the gap between them, arms wrapping around Arthur's lean frame and pulling him in, mouth seeking out Arthur's, urgent, purposeful, kissing him like he'll never stop, like he'll never get enough. Eames isn't sure it's a lie.
“You're so fucking lovely, Arthur,” he murmurs, lips wet, eyes dark, and Arthur hooks his thumbs into Eames' belt loops and shifts them together, Eames' back to the railing, Arthur's knee sliding neatly between Eames' thighs, and they absolutely can't do this here, on Dom and Mal's back porch while they're in the kitchen opening wine and laying out cutlery, but Eames can't quite bring himself to care.
He turns them around, hoists Arthur onto the wide railing, unzips him and shoves a hand down his trousers.
“Fuck, Eames,” Arthur exhales, nothing more than a whisper, lets his head drop backwards like a stringless marionette, mouth falling open as Eames strokes him, awkward and rough, hand already slick with sweat and fluid. Arthur's in danger of falling off the damn railing as his hips look for purchase against Eames' hand, Eames' left arm the one thing holding him there as he brings Arthur off quick and hot and sure.
Arthur starts to let out a moan, and Eames shuts him up the only way he knows how, all teeth and tongue, Arthur so goddamn pliant in his arms, wrapping legs up and around his waist, sloppy sated kisses and no finesse at all, taking everything Eames can give, and that's enough, it's more than enough to push Eames over the edge. Orgasm kicks the legs out from under him, and Arthur isn't much help, clinging like a tall, heavy blissed-out limpet.
They're sliding to the floor along with the petunias and a ceramic planter and a stray lawn chair Eames swears he's never seen before, zippers undone, pants damp, shirts rucked up and filthy when Dom opens the backdoor and says, “Did something fall—oh, fucking God! Jesus H. fucking Christ! Fuck, fuck, fuck. Goddamnit, Eames—” which brings Mal running, wine bottle in one hand, kitchen knife in the other.
Arthur starts to laugh and can't stop, half on top of Eames, half-sprawled in dirt and broken petunias. Mal takes one look at the mess they are and leaves them the bottle of wine, pushing Dom back into the house. They can still hear him swearing, “I fucking didn't need to see that, guys!” Mal's laughing like she'll never stop.
Eames grabs the wine and drinks some, cold and sweet, straight from the bottle. Arthur's laughing so hard he's shaking, breath coming in sharp exaggerated huffs like a seal, and what's Eames supposed to do in the face of that but laugh, too?
Arthur brushes petunia petals off Eames' face, out of his hair, kisses him fiercely, licking the taste of wine from his mouth before stealing the bottle for himself. Arthur throws his head back, just like he does when he comes, and Eames is sure his heart stops for an instant. He watches Arthur's long, elegant throat swallowing and swallowing, greedily drinking the wine, a pink flush high on his cheeks, all the way up to the tips of his ears. He's the most beautiful thing Eames has ever seen.
Eames lifts the hand that isn't sticky to stroke down Arthur's throat, Adam's apple shifting beneath his fingers as Arthur swallows, and Eames sits up, lap full of Arthur. He's certain he opens his mouth to speak, but nothing comes out.
Arthur sets down the wine bottle, and kisses him, mouth so fucking sweet Eames forgets everything but that, and Arthur looks into his eyes, and says, “Yeah. Fuck. I know,” as if they've had a conversation, and maybe they have.
Eames knows with sudden clarity exactly why Dom hoped they'd hate each other. Eames was wrong about Dom. Dom knows all about chemistry, maybe more than Eames will ever know, and this, the two of them, he and Arthur—not unlike Dom and Mal—is a planetary level event, the apocalypse waiting to happen, and Eames knows what Dom suspects, that Eames won't know how to handle this, this terrifying fall into someone else's needs and wants, the desire to give them everything and then give them more.
“I'm not—I don't know if I can—”
Arthur seems so much older than he looks, and there's no judgement in his face as he touches Eames' lips reverently, lands a kiss on the corner of his mouth, his stubbled jaw.
“I don't know if I can either.” Arthur shifts off Eames' lap, taking his warmth and standing up, seeming like he's suddenly miles away, and Eames feels a loss he knows he'll feel a thousand times and never get used to. Then a hand reaches out and grasps his wrist, pulls him up, pulls him close, Arthur a perfect fit in his arms.
“We'll never know, right?” Arthur says. “If we don't take a chance? We'll never know what we might've had, what we could be together.”
Arthur's eyes are deep brown, like the carpet in their crappy motel room, and Eames isn't about to make that comparison because he really doesn't want to get punched in the face. But Arthur's worked with him enough these past months he can read the shift in Eames' face.
“What?” he says suspiciously, and Eames can feel Arthur's fingers curling inward, a fist in progress.
Eames smiles at him, tries to sound braver than he feels, and says, “Darling, we'll always have the Motel 6.”
“And the porch railing,” Arthur adds, grinning.
“Jesus, you guys, will you fucking shut up already?” comes from inside, Dom's voice pleading. “I don't want to know any of this!”
“And the futon,” Eames says loudly, even though they haven't so much as sat on it together. “Mustn't forget the futon, kitten!”
Dom makes a horrible choking sound. “You did not! That's—our child is going to sleep in that room!”
“And the Volvo,” Arthur volunteers, getting into the spirit of it, even as they start to put themselves back together.
“I hate you both so fucking much,” Dom says. “Now go get cleaned up so we can pretend none of this ever happened.”
"You know, Mr. Eames," Arthur says with a smile, "the Motel 6 has over 1100 sites in North America alone."
"Been checking up, darling?"
"Oh my God, Arthur! Enough! I'm sorry already. You can screw whoever you want, just don't do it on my porch! Jesus!" Dom appears at the door, red-faced and trying not to look directly at them. "Will you two just get the fuck in here so we can eat?"
Mal's laughter bubbles up like champagne, clear and lovely, and Eames kisses Arthur once more to the sound of the door slamming. It's unhurried, almost chaste, simply because Eames honestly likes him a ridiculous amount aside from the attraction, and Eames knows in his heart he'll still like Arthur, will always like Arthur for giving him these moments covered in dirt and semen and crushed petunias, sprinkled with wine and laughter.
If they never have anything else, it's more than enough because Eames always thought love happened to other people, but now he knows differently. He slips his hand into Arthur's and lets himself be led inside.